May I speak in the name of Almighty God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen
Our Gospel reading today concerning the Transfiguration of our Lord is, I think, a particularly appropriate one for the final Sunday before Lent begins. One reason this is so is because this passage essentially marks the middle of the Gospel narrative. Before the transfiguration we have signs and miracles – Jesus essentially establishing who he is and from where his authority comes - and teaching . And after, while miracles and teaching continues, the context has changed; for our Lord has set his face toward Jerusalem and begun his journey there – a journey that will end with his passion. And Lent is for his Church very much a journey of remembrance, a spiritual journey where we walk with our Lord during that season to the place where he will be arrested, put on trial, tortured, crucified, and die.
There is also the fact that the story of the Transfiguration resonates very strongly with the accounts of our Lord's baptism. Again we have the voice from heaven declaring him to be the beloved Son; again we have the Holy Spirit, in the first represented by the hovering dove, here by the overshadowing cloud. And it is good to think of baptism at this time; for I am sure you all remember the original purpose of Lent. It was the time of final and special preparation for the catechumens of the early Church, those who were being taught the faith, to get them ready for the wonderful day when they would be baptised – a sacrament that was in those times administered only on Easter Sunday as a general rule. And so they would spend the forty days before in a time of prayer and fasting and other spiritual disciplines and exercises to prepare themselves for that great day.
It was quite natural, I believe, that others of their Christian family who were already baptised would wish to show solidarity with them in their joyful but austere preparations by supporting them by keeping this time of self-discipline with them. As time passed the Church recognised the value of this Lenten season for its own sake; and when the day came when adult baptism was rare and infant baptism the norm the keeping of Lent as a special season of preparation for Easter was commonly practised throughout the Christian world.
This resonance with our Lord's baptism also serves to remind us of what happened immediately after his baptism – his 40 days of fasting and temptation in the desert. It is on these 40 days that our own season of Lent is modelled. And this is particularly interesting, given Lent's association with preparation for Baptism. This is because, as you will of course know, that during his time in the desert our Lord faced Satan; and three times Satan tempted the Lord to turn from God to him, trying to use scripture to do so; and three times our Lord responded by not only rejecting Satan, but providing a scriptural reason why one should instead turn to God. So three rejections of Satan and three turning instead to God. And at baptism the candidates are asked a series of six questions; you, of course, know what they are, but let us hear them again, and the responses that candidates or their sponsors on their behalf make:
Do you reject the devil and all proud rebellion against God?
I reject them.
Do you renounce the deceit and corruption of evil? I renounce them.
Do you repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour? I repent of them.
Do you turn to Christ as Saviour? I turn to Christ.
Do you submit to Christ as Lord? I submit to Christ.
Do you come to Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life?
I come to Christ.
And I am sure you will note that these questions are made up of three rejections of Satan; and three turning instead to Christ, the second person of the blessed Trinity.
With so many baptismal associations with the season of Lent, it is little wonder that Easter Sunday has always been seen as a day when it was particularly appropriate for the renewal of baptismal vows. Therefore, as you are reflecting during the time left to you as to how you will keep a holy Lent this year, it might be an idea this year to place yourself in the role of a catechumen of old: look again at the basic tenets of the Christian faith, consider deeply and honestly how you might live them out better, even as you ask God's pardon for your failings and his strength to do better; reflect daily on the baptismal promises that you will make again when the season is over; prepare yourself to make them well by the spiritual disciplines you practise during the season, keeping in mind the importance of engaging in a particular way those of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. I will try to assist you in those matters by going through, one by one, those promises during our Wednesday services during Lent. In addition, I would suggest it might well be of great benefit for each and everyone here to pray those questions and responses daily, meditating up them briefly about what they mean to you and how you should live out your Christian faith that day. Doing so is a great way to prepare for the glories of Easter morning, when you will make again those vows – and it is my prayer that all here will do so worthily and joyfully. Amen.